What’s next?

I’m turning 38 and as of 13 contractual days ago, I have a job at Bulb as Head of Labs (new products, new parternships). Bulb is an affordable and green energy company.

So I’m back working in Shoreditch in a co-working space set up by David Cameron’s former digital advisor that looks like something out of The Shining. I’m running a team in a business of 300 employees.

Some of this feels new (where did all these young people come from?), some of this is not (Bagels on Brick Lane). It’s definitely strange though.

Why did I take a job you ask?

Well. It turns out that pioneering in the internet of things space isn’t really what pays the bills anymore. Writing a book doesn’t pay them at all and without sales reports, I’ll only know once a year (if a check comes through the door) how successful that has been. And then there’s Brexit. Many of my friends in #iot consultancies and startups have reported a rather quiet year. Does it feel like the financial crisis did? I don’t know as I had started Tinker in 2007 when I moved to London, aged 26. Since then I’ve managed to do quite a few things:

– sold the first Arduinos in the UK
– hired the best in the country to help me run Arduino, product, innovation workshops
– worked with a variety of companies from adland, traditional press to R&D departments
– ran an open source project on the smart home which is in the permanent collection of the MoMA
– made a smart/dumb button for russell which is also in the permanent collection of the MoMa
– commercialised a 2G version of the Good Night Lamp which is in the permanent collection of the London Design Museum and has been exhibited in the Science Gallery in Dublin, the Steven Lawrence Gallery and is currently in the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford as part of an exhibition on the home and security
– run the first #iot pop-up shop from my office
– curated 2 years of projects and events around the smart home across Europe
– wrote a book about smart homes which was published in September by Apress
– I’ve been running the London internet of things meetup for almost 8 years.
– I’ve given talks about innovation, the internet of things around the world (apart from Africa and South America).
– I’ve offered multi-day training both digitally and in person around the internet of things.
– I’ve been a visiting lecturer in the most prestigious schools across Europe.
– I’ve mentored professionals in search of a career change towards #iot.
– I’ve given feedback to PhD students around the world
– I’ve mentored and made connections for startups
– I’ve worked as an independent consultant for companies in the energy, smart agricultural, FMCG , industrial sectors and more
– I produced the first 2 UK editions of the Mozilla Festival
– I’ve worked with engineers, developers, designers, product managers, marketers and more.
– Two years ago I took 75 flights that year. This year it’s 45.

It’s fair to say I rushed through much of the last 10 years life. As an immigrant keen to ‘make my mark’ I suppose it was inevitable. But as I started to relax into my official new home (and status as a British citizen) I started to look at things a little differently. I don’t consider I’ve been smart for most of my career but I do know I was first to reach a lot of invisible lines in the sand. And for the first time perhaps I’m content in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter if nobody knows nor if I slow down a bit.

I’m also willing to learn from working *inside* an organisation and Hayden Wood, the CEO of Bulb, is kind enough to give me that platform. Whether he realises it or not, I’m doing exactly the same thing as I usually do, working with people I like, hiring people I respect, working with organisations and figuring out what the best outcome will be. I’m also surrounded by friends who work in different bits of the business and that’s fun. It’s a scale-up and I’ve never worked in a business at that stage. It reminds me of Inception, the metaphysical furniture and building moving around me. But that’s also the kind of environment I thrive in.

I’m not full time yet as I still have a couple of clients still ticking over, a book to promote and the redesign of the Good Night Lamp for CAT-M networks, but that’s not a lot for me. Slowing down is relative.

If you’re doing some exciting things with green technologies, hit me up at alexds at bulb dot co dot uk .

Smarter Homes: Lessons Learnt

I wrote a book on smart homes which has just been published by the lovely people at Apress in the US. Why did I do that? Well there were no books on smart homes as a technological, sociological and design movement. There are plenty of design and architecture books out there, plenty of books on domesticity, the history of interior design, the history of home architecture and a handful of antiquated books on networking in your home. But a combination of these things? Nothing.

And with the spirit of wanting to write a book I wanted to read (but also that my mother would understand) I sat down intermittedly for a year and a half and learnt a lot. I spent a lot of time in archives and libraries because, no you can’t google your way through most of what I found. You actually have to look at a book. I also bought a lot of books. I already love books but now I have a shelf dedicated to the books I bought for research and it makes for a pretty diverse collection. From books about robots to books about games and early computing to books about some early modernist homes for the rich. I wove a rich tapestry of industries together and I think it makes for a perfectly readable starting point for others to go digging even further and write their own PhDs or books. I uncovered some really lovely stories and people who have been lying dormant on archive.org and in libraries around the world. I also had the pleasure of reading works from archives that aren’t digitised yet for lack of funding. It’s been immensely pleasurable and rewarding to connect worlds that I was always interested and connecting to: the technologies of everyday life. As I tour around Germany, recording content for a podcast I’ll be putting together pretty soon, I’m giving a talk about what I learnt from writing the book and wanted to share it with others in case a blog post is all you’re willing to commit to the topic (don’t worry, most designers would have stopped reading by now).

 

Lesson 1: The home isn’t a system

The internet of things loves a good systems diagram. When you google iot you find beautiful images of product outlines in circles connected to other circles. Like the internet! Well things aren’t like the internet and people don’t buy things like they click on webpages. The model simply doesn’t apply. But the imagery is so potent its over 100 years old. The idea that scientific models can apply to the home space can be seen in the times of electrification. An electric home was a really big deal for many families who couldn’t afford the retrofitting costs. Companies put together ads, competitions, articles to convince people that an ‘all-electric’ home was something you could puchase and would purchase. In reality, it was a bitty affair. Until the late 1950s most Americans wouldn’t have electricity and General Electric had to lobby hard through the GE Homes (plaques on homes that had invested in the most electric appliances). In the UK, the Electric Association of Women (E.A.W) lobbied women to buy all-electric homes, even running competitions and they always failed. Noone takes the risks they’re asking us to take: change your entire personal and family routine to accomodate a set of new or unknown technologies. People bought into the dream one appliance at a time, starting with the electric iron (not lighbulbs) and then moving on to other things. This idea of a systems view of the home even comes into play  in the late 1980s when the term smart home starts to take a hold. The Smart House LLP is created to rewire the whole home with new data cables and the idea is that someone would pay for a new home with this set of technologies in mind. Even IBM gets involved with Director. And none of it sticks. Or rather a few rich people get some lights that come on when you open a cupboard but its hardly the stuff of 1950s fantasies. Because ultimately the dream of a connected set of daily interactions is at best an industrial dream of automation applied to the home space, the least predictable, most heterogenous space. Imagined issues of interoperability and standards are laughable when you understand that it’s not what prevents people from buying connected products. As a professor once said to me: you’re either selling aspirin or chocolate. And current connected home applications that imaging an ‘if this then that’ scenario aren’t doing any real user testing nor product research worthy of that name. People buy technology one product at a time. Not 10 things at a time.

 

Lesson 2: Size influences behaviour

The size of the home will have an influence on what technologies are brought and how much interaction takes place with the rest of the city. In the 18th century a fire range with a kettle and an iron did most of what you wanted: heat, a little bit of food prep (people ate out a lot) and ironing your husbands and kids clothes on wash day. Everything else was communal. Obviously because of health standards, that became a problem. So apartments and properties got bigger to accomodate a legally required indoor bathroom. And as countries grew wealthier the homes grew to accomodate the influx of goods made in the city or that were traded at home. Eventually technology like the radio and the phone helped manage the flow of information and people so the home became less prone to random visitors and a ‘private’ space could be more clearly established. But how much space do you need to establish that  private space? Is a capsule hotel enough? Is a Hong Kong high rise enough? Is a mid-western 5 bedroom home enough? We don’t have a clear understanding of what enough is because none of us share the same socio-economic conditions nor personal aspirations. Designers and architects have certainly tried to lead the way starting with the concept of ‘Existenz Minimum’ in the early 1920s which led to lots of ‘decluttering’ hand in hand with more boxy architecture and more industrial materials being used. Purity of form meant purity of spirit and more humble living post-WWI. Well we’re far from that discourse now with East London ‘co-living’ spaces being on par with the size of a UK prison cell. So we have ‘clean living’ and Marie Kondo instead as it’s less affordable for most to decide to buy a designer home or designer furniture. But technology doesn’t contribute to this much as its often about adding things to the home, not taking things away. So there’s a tension there. We have a lot less technologies lying around because of computers (rolodex, calculators, alarm clocks) but we consume more power than the industrial sector and new connected produce experiences are asking us to keep spending on things that use up power. Not really minimal nor clean.

 

Lesson 3: Inventors come first, noone remembers them.

We don’t talk about invention much anymore but I think that the last 18 years of internet of things development has been invention. Noone remembers the inventor of the telephone (Antonion Meucci) nor the lightbulb (Joseph Swann). So perhaps noone will remember pioneers of the physical computing age in 80 years. It’s already complicated enough to understand the real stories behind the beginnings of Apple, Microsoft and Google, image in 50 years! I sometimes think we know far more about the world before industrialisation than after. Test units, production batches, mass production all make it really difficult to ascertain process, influence and collaboration.  Industrial design history is littered with inaccuracies, ‘circa’ next to production dates in museums, falsehoods which aren’t referenced. It’s a minefield. I just spent a couple of days researching the cantilever chair which was technically invented by a number of people who never made them ‘pretty’ and then Mart Stam, a dutch architect sees a collapsible seat in a car and designs a tubular cantilever chair. People then say he designed the first cantilever chair. He didn’t, he just made it visually iconic. And then Marcel Breuer chimed in and so did Mies Van der Rohe and Eileen Gray. Not the inventors. The advertisers. The myth makers. That discrepancy is important when putting people on pedestals.

 

Lesson 4: The home and it’s forever servants

Most western nations don’t have servants anymore. But they might have occasional maids, assistants, virtual assistants and voice assistants. We use TaskRabbit, LaundryApp, Deliveroo and Amazon Key. For all intensive purpose, we still have servants who do low-paid jobs that facilitate our home life. If we’re super posh (or in the Middle East, super rich) we have live-in maids whose passports we confiscate. And human trafficking is a real problem. But we still develop interfaces that promote a relationship of power and servitude with our conencted products. I don’t have to yell ‘thank you’ at Alexa and she doesn’t yell back ‘you’re welcome’. I think Jeeves and HAL got treated better than Alexa does. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman? Which brings me to the last point.

 

Lesson 5: We talk to women as if it was 1957.

Most brand of appliances show happy, smiling parents doing laundry in a washing machine that uses an app with glee. Nobody relates to this. We think ‘oh cool’ and click on Insta/Snapchat/Twitter again for the 10th time in the last minute. We don’t value home interiors and our life at home as we once did as we have almost 50% less people over as we did 10 years ago. We ‘meet’ online, while in our underwear, on our couch, watching Netflix. We don’t need a friend to see our curtain choice, to look at how we laid out our kitchen as a way of signalling how well we’re doing socio-economically. Women in 2018 have other more important societal issues to deal with than buying a connected washing machine. They just about got their partner to do his bit of the house work, now they’re interested in how they might get equal pay. Screw the washing machine. But instead of embracing this change, companies still show us women laughing eating salad. In computing, historically, its the same. Computers were sold to men at work and women in the house to ‘print out shopping lists’ and help kids with their homework. This dates back to 1957 but many of the same language and ideas are still kicking around design schools and R&D departments. 

So all of this makes for a complicated space to design for and in. The book is small, a short read, but an accessible and important one I think for computer scientists, digital designers and product designers alike. Share it far and wide and send it to your institutional library as a suggestion!

Sunday Scraps #3

(Yes I know, not posted on a sunday. Sue me)

Hiroshima / The ugly scandal that cancelled the Nobel Prize / Sugartime / Apollo magazine / Basic Design: a revolution in Art History, the beginning of the Hatton Gallery  / John Pasmore: The Developing process video / This Is Tomorrow (1956) exhibition / Design education: time to reflect (1990) / Euston Road School / White Elephant / Genkan japanese home entrance / Church Going by Philip Larkin  / Quietism / Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate olive cake / Victor Pasmore Gallery / Resurgence magazine / The Theory of the Leisure Class / CNAA art collection of Victor Pasmore / Positive.news / Designs for the Pluriverse / What money can’t buy by Michael Sandel / Automated ethics on Aeon / Open School East in Margate / Moral Psychology Research Lab / Dorothy Parker / London Freud Museum / Matters of Care (book) / On Liberty / Jardins de la Villa de Noailles / Villa Tamaris / Capsule housing plan for low income workers in Spain / Chateau La Coste / Bernar Venet / Darmstadt Artist Colony / Dora Maar / Espace de l’Art Concret / Mougins Museum / Rene Pechere / Beau travail (1999) / Pierre Bonnard / Surrealism, Sex & Sadomasochism / Schindler House / Bokklubben World Library / Peggy Guggenheim / Derwent Museum / Hotel La Serra in Ivrea / Deontological ethics / A translator’s son (I would be a daughter) / explanation for ‘stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus’.

Cities that make

I spent a couple of days in Liverpool this week, catching up with Adrian McEwen, an old friend, author, technical #iot consultant and founder of what I consider to be one of the most embedded and sustainable maker spaces in the North: DoES Liverpool. We talked a lot about what’s happening in his city and that’s fed my thoughts on the future of cities which I’m sharing at the V&A tonight.

This summer is strange, the summer before Brexit. I’m having lots of coffees with peers who are feeling the pain of what looks like a creative knowledge economy slow down. It might just be a summer lull too but it’s a good time to reflect on what makes cities like London great places to make things, for now. Every city, city district or area that hopes to call itself ‘great for makers’ needs to get some things right:

Be more than a real estate play
Nevermind the gag-reflex inducing WeWork, space isn’t the most important problem an artist, maker or product entrepreneur has. If it is, they’re probably not very good at what they do. There is a very rich history of people running cottage industry businesses from their living rooms and spare rooms. Space is in a way both compulsory and optional. Karen Finch (who I helped add to Wikipedia the other day) started and ran a whole textile conservation practice from her home for a while. I started selling Arduinos from my boyfriend’s flat in Hackney in 2007. Those businesses are, to a city, as relevant as the digital unicorns we champion. So what are hyper-groomed co-working spaces there for? They should be championed as a stop-gap.

A real business is sustainable enough to pay council tax. A real business is sustainable enough to pay its own water and electric bills. A real business is interested in shaping a culture that isn’t just about how to use Slack and github, but how a space feels and how lunch happens. You can’t do that in a co-working space someone else owns.

Co-working spaces are great before you start running a larger business and you value being out of the house and engaging with others. But there’s a tension there. Ideally a city probably needs people in a co-working space to work somewhere, go to lunch somewhere else (a local market or restaurant), have meetings in a local cafe and go out for a beer somewhere else again (a local pub). If a co-working spaces tries to offer too many of these economic functions, it’s as good to the city as someone cooking themselves lunch at home.  So the city has to think about this when it funds ‘innovation spaces’ in the middle of nowhere. Are there cafs nearby for people to go to? or a good pub? Will people just commute in and out of this ‘innovation space’ and never meet their buildings neighbours?

Support informal networks not just networking events

Tom Cecil who makes the UK’s enclosure for the Good Night Lamp works in an arch in E14 in London. That’s far. He doesn’t even have much of an online presence, but he’s busy all the time. Artists who show their work at Frieze will commission him to build their furniture or sculptures. He’s got an amazing light industrial space right next to a taxi service, MOT shops, a fabric distributor and some metal workshops. He knows everyone there. He cycles to work and has been fitting the space out through years of work and investment.  The first batch of Good Night Lamp was assembled by some Goldsmiths students he trained. There were 3 of them who had odd jobs and were studying in the Fine Art courses. These informal routes of work weave themselves naturally through the city. With Brexit, this will become a big problem. Visas will be required to transition a young talent to a collaborator. Tier 2 visas are annoying and their process will need to be completely redesigned especially for creative skills. Cities may want these kinds of processes to be devolved away from Westminster to attract the most talent locally or to keep the foreign students who will contribute to the universities budgets but can’t stay on afterwards.  Especially if the UK wants to reboot a dying industrial sector, it has to be able to both train and keep talent around.

– If it’s about real estate, make it accessible.

Networking events are also a strange way of building relationships between city stakeholders and its makers and entrepreneurs. Often the city delegates networking to where it thinks it belongs, with ‘innovation agencies’, incubators, accelerators, universities. They’ll give them money to put on events with no ROI attached to these apart from the numbers they might collect like attendee numbers and some awful feedback forms that a small percentage of people will fill. No one ever questions who goes to these and why. Are they too early for parents, too late for mums, too expensive for students and not wheelchair accessible? Did they actually trigger a conversation that started a business 4 years down the line? How often does someone come along and what have they done with the knowledge that’s being shared? These questions almost never get asked of an ‘networking’ event and that’s a shame.

I’ve been running the London #iot meetup for almost 8 years and I know people have left jobs, found funding, found out about accelerators and more through these events. But that’s not from people showing up once, it’s from years of convincing, talking, having a drink together, complaining, whatever. Building a city that’s good for makers means being able to accomodate and more importantly champion the long-term work that needs to be done and is done rather informally by meetup organisers, maker space founders, small conference organisers or yearly tradeshows producers. Cities should be supporting these people more directly with free space or reduced service access. After all, these kinds of events make people believe that they can move to a city and make their dreams come true because a community is created.

 

– Make the tools do more

When we talk about making, we might talk about maker spaces which to a lay person is an office space crossed with a light industrial unit. These tools are often expensive to purchase for those space owners and a city needs to be aware of this. Because it’s not only the tools, but the talent and training that happens around those tools. A smart city that wants people to be making should subsidise some of the costs of both paying someone to train others, and the cost of training, especially when it happens outside of formal education. It’s already hard enough to get something like a CNC machine in, if the people who owned them were incentivised to train others more directly, imagine how many more people might learn how to use the, get ideas or get excited enough to enter more formal education as a result.

Cities in short could engage far more with the informal networks that are brittle and can suffer quite quickly from political turmoil or economic downturns. And it’s not about massive grants nor elaborate multi-year funding programs but about having enough emotional intelligence to put people in the right places, helping the people who are helping others.

Sunday Scraps #1

I’ve handed in my book‘s manuscript to my editor so I’m having a bit of a mental clear-out.  A year ago, when I started writing, I would write down in my Moleskines the unopened tabs on my phone to ‘come back to them later’. Pah! One of my favorite places on the internet is the Things Magazine so as an hommage, here is that collection of those mostly unread tabs, as they appear in my Moleskine. I’m not saying this will make any sense.

Tabs from May 4th 2017

Gluten free sourdough starter / Japan: the end of the rice age / Moscow Design Museum: discovering utopia / Technology readiness scale / Manufacturing readiness level assessment / Hemingway editor / Nigel Slater banana and cardamon cake / The Siege of Jodotville / El Lissitzky interior project for the F-type residential Cell of a Commune House (1927) / Quilts in women’s lives (film) / Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis / People in glass houses / Les Immateriaux de Jean-Francois Lyotard (1985) / Design after modernism, Beyond the Object  by John Thackara/ Brutalist Paris Map by Institut Francais / General Electric Realty Plot / The Listener Historical Archive / Therblig / Lillian Moller Gibreth / Cheaper by the dozen (film) / Applied Imagination by Alex Osbon / Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples / Googie Architecture / Cycle confident courses Lambeth 

 

 

What I think about voice

Some thoughts on all this voice malarky. I mean, Google Duplex. Because apparently it’s the future of the smart home, and seeing as I’m writing a damn book about the topic here we go. (PS: pre-order the book for much much more). I think this’ll be useful for the talk I’m giving tomorrow at YLE too.

Here’s some of what happens when you put speakers and ‘listeners’ in the home.

  • Audio Clippy: Seemingly helpful audio prompts based on in-home behaviour.  As soon as the sound of cooking happens, and your smart camera spots you took something out of the fridge, some dumb speaker goes ‘it looks like you’re trying to cook with butter, I have some recipe ideas for you’. 
  • Weird concepts of trust: I say ‘Alexa book me a flight’ and I’m not entirely sure I can trust it to find the cheaper one so I also cross-check on my laptop, my phone, I log out of Google, I use a VPN. I lose 3 hours of my life looking for a cheap flight.
  • The silent culprit. My speaker hears me scream but doesn’t call the police. It sees my partner is beating me or I’m beating my child frequently but doesn’t call social services.
  • GDPR for phone calls. You have to listen to a hold message before taking a call from a robot. You inevitably press 2 for no or 1 for yes depending on who it’s coming from.
  • You start to be very quiet a home. Just in case you know, the speaker misunderstands something you say as a request to purchase something.
  • The illusion of ease of use. Calls to hairdressers are easy but calls to doctors or plumbers are complicated. You spend 20mns setting up an IFTT recipe to place a phone call that would have taken you 2 minutes.
  • Language issues. You can’t train your assistant to make a call in another language because you also don’t know if they’re interpreting your request in the right way.
  • Phone lines are for robots anyway. Eventually Google gets its own phone line you pay for.
  • What customer service? Banks to lay off part of their customer support staff as bots can just talk at each other to solve complex banking queries and can exchange more secure authentification than my date of birth.
  • Captchas for phone calls. Elite restaurants buy new services to weed out people who can’t be bothered making their own bookings. Or the return of ‘we only do walk-ins’.

So. Yeh. That’s what I think about voice. Fun.

 

Intelligent for what?

Apologies to Drake for inelegantly stealing his line but I’m in Canada this week, speaking at the iX Symposium at the Société des Arts Technologiques and I’ve become very interested in the concepts of artificial intelligence and how mainstream the expression has become. The world of the internet of things in which I mostly operate  has been shoved aside by pundits and the press in favour of the ‘flavour of the year’AR/VR/AI/cryptocurrency. In this new wave of techno babble, some trends are clear:

  • Wilful ignorance of the experiential and hardware limitations. How many headsets can you ship, how much do they cost, when are you using them and for who? seem to be questions no one seems to be interested in.
  •  Misunderstanding of simple computing principles. Most people use ‘AI’ when they just mean ‘computers’ or ‘maths’. More on that below.
  • Misunderstanding of the hardware realities of computing principles. No, no and for the last time, no, you can’t put (X) on the blockchain, especially if there’s a hardware component to (X) which implies a supply chain, which implies people. Just forget it. You can’t track a fruit from birth and you don’t want to track child exploitation in the fashion world. So there.

I’m rereading The Golden Notebook and was struck by a line early on:

‘What’s wrong with living emotionally from hand-to-mouth in a world that’s changing at fast as it is?’.

Doris Lessing wrote this in 1962 but it could have been written in 2018. In our recurring feeling of being ‘in a frenzy’ all the time, we’ve, in fact, made little progress in utilising new technologies for socially useful purposes.

I posit that Artificial Intelligence could easily be described as:

Great work everyone. If computing power isn’t there to help us become better societies, then why exactly are we using it? Where are we going? What are we not designing instead? What are we avoiding because it’s supposedly ‘too complicated’. A lack of ambition shouldn’t be confused with a lack of technical capabilities. But if we’re not ambitious about what we want from our computers, we have to ask ourselves who we’re protecting by that cowardice. The rich? The powerful? The establishment?

These are some of the topics I hope we’ll talk about this week, because I really had had enough of us talking about AI without pointing out what exactly it is, and crucially, what it isn’t.

The Value of Design

There’s a new book out called Design and the Creation of Value  which at an eye watering £85 probably isn’t going to make it on to my reading list straight away but the review illustrates a point I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

“Moral or ethical value seems to have limited relation to design.” writes John Heskett.

I’ve been thinking about values a lot. Societal values as expressed by technology, design, artefact, building work, innovation. Every act of creation is a reflection of a time and a place. A time and place could be expressed in terms of values.

We don’t value the environment, so we pollute it. We don’t value others equally, so we discriminate against them. We don’t value weakness, so we punish the weak. We don’t value restraint, so we design for excess.

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica relationship was designed for a world of excess, discrimination, and exploiting weakness, digital addiction, lack of digital skills, lack of digital education. I’m sure the people at both those organisations use words like design, user-centered design, customer experience. But the result, the work done, is designed for a set of values which can only exist right now.

I was in the same room the other day as someone from the Design Council. That took me back to my first summer in London in 2005. Back then, I was interning as part of their team, designing services to help low-income households reduce their energy consumption. What this person had to say in 2018 was exactly the same as in 2005. Design is a good, useful tool for British businesses. Design is good. Good design is good, bad design is bad. Etc. etc. etc.

I started to wonder if our relationship with the design industry would change if we changed how we describe it and its individual components. What if we described industrial design as:

Taking advantage of the latest engineering and marketing techniques to exploit consumers psychologically and sociologically into purchasing a company’s newest product regardless of whether they can afford it or not, perpetuating an agenda of economic growth through conspicuous consumption and increasing personal credit risks.

or human-centered technology (such as Uber, Airbnb) as:

Making technologically-enabled social and economic change acceptable to a middle class population, disengaging them socially and politically from the employment and wider impact of their purchase on less wealthy populations.

These two definitions are written in jest of course, but I’m a big fan of thinking about impact across other themes in design than just materials, supply chain and aesthetics. If we can’t think more horizontally, I don’t think design has a future as a serious middle man between different professions. The professions we enable need to change though and instead of talking across engineering and the arts, we need to talk economics, philosophy, social impact and environmental impact. Let’s do more and take on more, not less.

The case for small design schools

I haven’t put a lot of effort in blogging here recently so I thought I’d kick off with a January post and get back in the groove.

I was invited by Francisco to come back to ITESM in Mexico City after leading a 3 day teacher training workshop last December. This time around I’m here to help students at the end of a wearable project and interacting with 18-24 year old industrial, engineering and mechatronic students in 2018 got me thinking about design schools I’ve visited in the last 10 years.

One of the reasons I don’t do much teaching is partially that I find the environment offered to students frustrating. When given the right conditions any student is able to do something worthy of attention. I seldom see the right conditions so I thought I’d put down what I think are challenges to coming up with good ideas and what I think a design school of the future should be.

Most design schools are too big.

When I studied my BA we were 74 students. I think less than 20 ended up in design careers, many retrained. Why did they take so many students? Probably because they had invested in an amazing library, worked with a famous architect to get a brand new building, had lots of staff. So it’s all about volume. More students need to be pushed through the doors regardless of work opportunities on the marketplace because really a design school is a business with bills to pay.

Most design schools treat their students like office workers

I was lucky to be part of the last generation of design students to have my own dedicated studio space at the Université de Montréal. Every single design school I have visited since doesn’t have this. The pencil-pushers in admin in design schools read all about open spaces and co working and started making money hiring out the building for external event. A design school becomes a real estate investment and the students become ‘customers’ of that space. Any superficial look at Bauhaus and other leading design schools shows dedicated work space that students can own, can customise, can settle in and live in. The quality of the work with change when you’re a hot desking office worker. Most design studios have dedicated spaces to work in, that they own, why on earth wouldn’t a design school enable that reality? Or perhaps they are training students to work at places like Google, but Google doesn’t hire a lot of design students.

Most design schools don’t know how to work with industry

Every year I might get invited to 1 or two degree shows. How on earth I got on their list is anyone’s guess but I’m really not interested in seeing the final work of a student, I’m interested in who they are and their process which a final show will never expose. External people don’t get exposed to student work often enough because design schools don’t know how to structure their engagements with industry. Ravensbourne College is the only one I know where the Head of Partnerships Claire Selby is public both in industry and inside her own building. This is quite rare.

I’d love to see design schools approach small studios, freelancers, alumni to invite them to dinners with students or away days, anything to create a bond, a relationship, an ongoing conversation.

Getting a professional to give a lecture is almost the worst way to engage with a class of students, as they are just being lectured to, will often disconnect and don’t really understand how important it is to engage with the lecturer because they’re used to having their lecturers near them all the time. To a design student, a lecture is just another bunch of links to Google at some point.

Nobody knows how to draw.

I’m a little shocked every time I go to visit a design program and I can’t see drawings on the walls but I see post-its. How did we get to a point where students aren’t able to think visually. Most people understand the world through images, diagrams, visuals and the ability for a student to get up and explain a complex set of issues with a few well chosen drawings is extremely powerful. Ask Bill Verplank who basically with one sketch created a whole industry. Powerpoint and Illustrator have taken that entirely away from the average design student. They now need to spend all night selecting images and drawing in an abstract environment to make their point. But pitching in a brainstorm session or a meeting with a client requires more reactivity, it requires the deep desire to draw what you mean. We’ve taken that away and given it only to architects. What a shame.

So what should be done?

Smaller design schools.

Taking the model of IDII where I studied but also Kaos Pilot and the Shumacher College I think there’s a great argument for small design programs. Less than 20 students. 20 people can create great bonds, and providing infrastructure for 20 people isn’t much: a studio room, a lecture room, a gallery with public access, somewhere to eat and workshop spaces. Somewhere to eat and workshop spaces don’t have to exist in the school as everyone and their uncle now owns a laser cutter, a 3D printer and Arduinos. So it’s down to a room, a lecture room. Could you run a design program this way? I think so.

It doesn’t have to be in the middle of nowhere, it can be in the heart of the city, but the scale of students matters to the quality of work. When you’re 20 people in a room you can’t drift off as easily, and competition builds up for people to do good work. It also means you can’t work on large team-based projects which are the death of collaborative work in industry. Teams of 2-3 are enough to get something really good done (as every startup ever has taught us).

Why a gallery? To create opportunities for the local community to get involved with the students, for the students to get used to speaking to people in the ‘outside world’. Design education shouldn’t be a bubble. As examples, Central St Martins has a shop and London College of Communications has a sort of gallery space in Elephant and Castle shopping centre.

Ideally the students are multi-disciplinary too so their interests and appetite are varied but they all want to develop solutions for the world. Those solutions could be a publication, a space, a product, a service, a business, this is all design. Why should we continue to teach design as if industrial silos still applied?

The class should be taken out on cultural visits and industrial engagements all the time like the The Slow Food Institute. As professionals you’ll be very mobile especially if you have your own business so why not get students used to that life.

I have so many more thoughts and I hope by publishing this someone out there will tell me: ah but you should see such and such a program. I hope there is something better than what I see which is a model which isn’t suited to industry or even modern living.

Design students deserve better and deserve to be pushed to try harder too. We have to give them the conditions to be challenged in ways that will make industry life feel like a piece of cake rather than a cliff’s edge.